LINCOLN, Nebraska–We’re sitting in an RV that Ben Sasse and his family and aides have lived in and campaigned out of for eight months, and I’m getting the sense that I’m riding with a militia member.
There’s a stuffed pheasant in the middle of the dashboard, strings of Christmas lights with empty shotgun shells pulled over each light, and a deer skull and turkey tail hanging from the wall.
But the decorations are “kind of a joke,” Sasse explains. They’re ironic hunter kitsch.
When Gun Owners of America bestowed the only “2nd amendment endorsement” in the race to the Havard and Yale grad, the group attributed it to his strong belief in restoring the constitutional vision of the Founding Fathers, wanting a leader in Washington rather than the solid gun-rights vote they could get from practically anyone who runs for office in Nebraska.
“Heaven knows you didn’t get the endorsement after a marksmanship test!” ribbed Sasse’s younger brother, who’s the real hunter in the family, Sasse says, laughing. The decorations are Sasse’s way of poking fun at his second-place hunting abilities.
Less than 24 hours later, he would go on to trounce his opponents in the GOP Senate primary, beginning a general election race in which he starts 25 points up over a novice Democratic candidate.
Sasse is, for all intents and purposes, the next senator from Nebraska. He seems to know it, too: the campaign’s polls, I later learn, showed him with a double-digit lead heading into election day. Our interview is briefly interrupted when his energetic consultant, Jordan Gehrke, asks him about which Jack Kemp quotes he wants to use in the victory speech the following night.
But after a campaign in which he was feared as a rabble-rouser by the top Republican in the Senate, claimed as a Tea Party icon in a GOP civil war he wants nothing to do with, and lied about as a D.C. resident and Obamacare supporter by an opponent that gave Pinocchio a run for his money, Ben Sasse just wants to tell his story for once.
“I didn’t decide to seek political office because of some intra-Republican party spitting match. I’m running for office because I believe, as Nebraskans clearly believe, that the future of our country is in danger,” he says. “I want us to have a more conservative, more principled, more constitutional Republican party. I want it to be higher quality – better. Better candidates, better ideas, more winsome and persuasive arguments, and I want a majority. They’re not mutually exclusive!”
A youngish-looking 42 – “my wife jokes that I’m 42, look 32, and have sometimes acted 22,” he says – Sasse was a business consultant who, at 37, took over a nearly bankrupt college because of his skills as a turnaround artist.
He’s lived all over the place: Boston as an undergrad at Harvard, Oxford, England studying abroad, Connecticut getting his Ph.D. at Yale, California working for a Christian organization, Chicago as a business consultant and Washington, D.C. for stints on Capitol Hill and in the Justice Department. But Sasse is fairly emphatic about his Nebraska roots.
If he wins, “we’re not moving to D.C. We’re going to commute,” he says. He picked Nebraska – Sasse lives a mile from where he grew up in Freemont, NE in a house along the Platte River – as a suitable spot to raise his kids. “I’m sure there are a hundred ways that people in yuppie suburbs or big cities in New England can get their kids work. I just don’t know how to do it. I know how to get my kids working in the fields, and they’re going to work in the fields,” he says.
Sasse’s concern over imparting character to the next generation goes far beyond just his kids. In talking to him for several hours on the RV, through an ill-fated campaign stop, over lunch from a terrible Mexican fast-food joint, and as he received a jubilant reception at his campaign headquarters, it’s the one idea he turned to most frequently.
Indeed, Sasse is far more philosophical about his role in public life than the other lawmakers I typically encounter in the Capitol. A self-described “total Arthur Brooks nerd,” he tells me about “earned success versus learned dependency” and asks at one point, “if you don’t have people that live in rich, vibrant, thick communities, where is character going to be built?”
In that vein, he cares deeply about words, and it annoys him when reporters botch his carefully-crafted phrases.
At his campaign launch event, Sasse proclaimed that “if the Obamacare worldview lives, the idea of America declines.” The headline in the Omaha World Tribune was “If Obamacare survives, U.S. Won’t.”
He didn’t mean the U.S. would die, he says, but that “what America means is not dependence. America is about people moving from dependency to independent living because that’s where all the virtue of life is.”
Obamacare, and Obama’s presidency generally, have cut diametrically against that idea, Sasse says.
At a series of town halls he held day-after-day throughout the primary campaign, Sasse would conduct a thought experiment with his audiences.
In the town of Beatrice, Nebraska, population 12,459, there’s a memorial to the National Homestead Act of 1862, the two-page law that legally created the state of Nebraska.
Standing next to a nearly 10-foot-tall stack of Obamacare regulations, Sasse would ask his audiences to imagine Obama giving his infamous “you didn’t build that” speech in Beatrice at the memorial.
“I don’t think our people would look up at him in anger. They would look up at him in complete confusion. ‘Sir, what are you talking about? Our ancestors didn’t build this? Look around! They built the future of their kids and grandkids. The federal government didn’t build this!'”
“That doesn’t mean the federal government doesn’t do anything,” he says, noting the yellow ribbons on the trees in Freemont for the soldiers at war. But it should be strictly limited to the things that states and local governments can’t do.
Monday, Slate Reporter Dave Weigel asked on Twitter, “Will Ben Sasse be the first Republican senator whose given a TED Talk?” referring to the addicting online lecture series of academics talking pop science.
Sasse did one about a year back on the crises facing American colleges. Watching it shows a man more comfortable with the vernacular of academia than the one on the campaign trail. (“Lets be honest, we’re nerds…we number ourselves among the autodidacts,” he says at the beginning).
But it also illustrates Sasse’s depth. One of the reasons the media has had a hard time pinning down exactly who he is – the “next Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)” or another of several mainstream GOP candidates, a rebel or a team player – is that he’s complicated. And his place in Washington will be, too.
The lawmaker that Sasse expresses admiration for is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who has served as a mentor to Sasse, keeping up his advice even as he struggles through cancer treatments.
Coburn is famous in Washington for his oversight of federal spending and demanding cuts. He was given the nickname “Dr. No.”
There are few who doubt his conservatism. But in the late stages of his senate career, Coburn also feuded with Grover Norquist as he tried to negotiate a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal that would have increased taxes.
Back on the RV, we stop at a retirement home outside Lincoln, but as we approach, Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse’s campaign manager, appears anxious. The visit, apparently, has not been cleared in advance with the facility. Approaching the door, Sasse instructs us to just “act like we know where we’re going” and hope no one notices. But the elderly women in the lobby definitely do, asking “who are all these people?” No one seems to want to volunteer their name to the exercised woman who enters the lobby, demanding answers.
Once we’re booted out, Sasse walks through the three types of retirement homes and their policies for impromptu campaign visits. Fresh from an hour of big ideas on the RV, I ask him – do you enjoy this?
He has, but because of the town halls where he could get into meaty constitutional law and philosophical topics with what were surprisingly large crowds for Nebraska.
That experience in his mind, and coasting to victory in his first political campaign, Sasse has an optimism about voters you won’t find in D.C.
“People project on voters that they’re idiots, and they’re not! They’re often disconnected from the policy details of a specific issue area. But when you have a voter ask you, ‘tell me what you’re going to do to create jobs?’ Politicians left, right and center will start answering the question with about how they’re going to create jobs as a politician. What I answer every time, is, ‘well, first of all, I’m not a politician, I’m doing this for the first time. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Because I’m running for political office, and my job is to create a framework for ordered liberty and to take an oath to the Constitution and affirm the ‘you did build that’ worldview. Politicians don’t create jobs! Entrepreneurs, and business owners and neighborhoods create jobs.
“They’re not saying, tell me all the ways you’re going to create jobs. They’re testing to see whether you know that politicians don’t create jobs,” he says.
At the beginning of Sasse’s campaign, a pollster warned him not to do that kind of thing. The exact advice, a campaign aide recalls, was “you’re going to jump off a building and break both your fucking ankles and then try to start to run a 5k race. You might not want to break both your ankles at the beginning of the race.”
Sasse and his wife, Melissa, had other ideas.
Sasse’s victory wasn’t a sure thing, by the way. Sasse started the campaign with virtually no name recognition and a blip on the map compared to Osborn’s substantial support. An early campaign video made the Drudge Report, and he made the cover of National Review, putting on the map as an important new conservative voice. Toward the end of the campaign, outside money from the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and other groups helped stave off any would-be come-from-behind bid from Sid Dinsdale, a wealthy, and relatively liberal, businessman.
But since “go big or go home” worked spectacularly well, Sasse riding a high the day before the election, sure of himself and his ideas.
The darker part of the campaign, as he describes it, was his interaction with the cynical worldview of Washington, D.C. politics – the consultants and fundraisers he assumes convinced his chief opponent, Shane Osborn, to run a fairly nasty campaign against him. “It’s sad,” he says, “it breeds cynicism among our kids.”
There’s also Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader whom Sasse feuded with in the fall.
Early in the campaign, Sasse received the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, run by Jim DeMint protege Matt Hoskins. Hoskins had also just endorsed Matt Bevin, McConnell’s primary opponent in Kentucky, prompting McConnell and co. to go on the warpath against Hoskins, with Sasse as collateral damage.
More specifically, word got back to Sasse that McConnell was convinced Sasse had signed a pledge to oppose McConnell as a condition of receiving the SCF endorsement.
To Sasse, the idea was ridiculous. “I didn’t make such a pledge, I wouldn’t make such a pledge, and, more fundamentally, no one had asked me to,” he says incredulously.
Trying to defuse the situation, Sasse asked for a meeting. Receiving no response, he pushed harder, and McConnell finally agreed. So Sasse headed to Washington.
“I didn’t take any staffer because I had no reason to distrust Leader McConnell and so I didn’t think I needed a witness to the meeting. I went out there simply to tell him, ‘I think you’ve heard that I’ve made some pledge that I’d oppose you, and it didn’t happen, and I just thought we should meet and look each other in the eye, man to man, and I would tell you that I never made any such pledge’.”
“The meeting was a little tense. He clearly started with a complicated view of me because of some of the support that I had gotten by that point. But there was no yelling. There was nothing terrible in the meeting. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but it was fine.
“And, at the end of the meeting, I asked what are the terms of how we’re going to discuss this because it seems to me this is just a personal meeting it should be off the record…Both Leader McConnell and his aide” – senior National Republican Senatorial Committee aide and veteran McConnell hand Josh Holmes – “agreed that no one was going to talk about the meeting.”
Shortly thereafter, a detailed account of the meeting leaked. Specifically, to me. How it leaked, I can’t say, but it was complicated. The story eventually took on a life of its own, leading to a narrative that McConnell “took Sasse to the woodshed.”
To Sasse, the whole episode was just another example of Washington’s petty, self-obsessed bickering. But the tension between the Sasse camp and McConnell camp has persisted.
Billy Piper, a lobbyist and McConnell’s former chief of staff, worked hard to help Osborn, enlisting K Street. In the closing weeks of the race, a super PAC run by two former McConnell aides also operating a pro-McConnell super PAC went on the air with brutal attack ads funded by Osborn donors.
On election day, news stories start popping up about McConnell and Sasse mending fences. None of them seem to be prompted by Sasse or his campaign. Then, word of a phone call starts to leak. Sources – not to me – say Sasse called McConnell to pledged his support for him.
Not true, a steamed source close to Sasse says. “The subject of backing him for leader in an intra-party race never came up. Ben will not be endorsing anyone until after the election,” the source says.
On stage after the race has been called – Sasse won with 49 percent to Dinsdale’s 22 percent and Osborn’s 21 percent – Sasse quotes Kemp: “We may not get every vote. But we’ll speak to every heart.”
He returns to his themes about the paradoxical core idea of American politics is that politics shouldn’t be a big part of life. The crowd is wild and loud.
Late in the evening, the core Sasse campaign is celebrating heartily at a nearby tavern. “How do you feel?” I ask him. “Tired,” he says, smiling and looking exhausted.
I mention the chatter about whether he might be the first GOP Senator to have given a TED Talk. “Really?” he asks – he thought a number of senators might have given one.
Sasse knows that what he did on the campaign trail is different, but maybe he doesn’t yet know how different he might be from the other senators he’ll join in D.C.